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7 Signs Your Membership Organization Forgot How to Be a Membership Organization

Updated: Apr 18

When widespread membership decline was first cited as a trend in the mid-1990s, panic set in, and associations clutched their proverbial pocket-books. A drop-off in membership meant associations experienced a drop-off in dues, so many associations diversified their revenue streams.

In theory, this was a good idea and a healthy business practice, but over time, the focus shifted from membership as a mission to something else entirely. Profitability became a core pursuit as more associations focused on producing more events, campaigns, and public services. The idea was to cast a wider net, be accessible to as many people as possible, and the revenues and membership would surely follow.

Except they didn’t.

This is because membership stopped being the strategic and operational priority. As strange as it sounds, membership started to take a backseat in membership organizations. As a result, associations have struggled to evolve and meet the changing needs of members.

In my latest book, MemberShift, I identified a list of seven telltale signs a membership organization isn’t actually focused on its members. Any of these resonate with your organization?

Largely Supported by Event Revenue

It’s rare to encounter association planning conferences that are exclusive to members only, but it’s common to find associations dedicating a considerable amount of staff time to event planning or relying almost exclusively on the revenues generated by events. Where’s the member value in these non-member offerings? If you’re not sure, then be careful. It’s possible your association has lost sight of its mission and morphed into an event planning company.

Focused on Non-Member Participation

There’s a misguided belief that membership will grow when associations open the doors to give access and provide value to the masses. Are there as many non-members as members attending events and utilizing services? If so, then membership decline is inevitable. When associations act like a nonprofit providing a public service — frequently giving non-members equal or similar access — the value of membership is lost. Members should always have a clear advantage.

Doesn’t Focus on Membership at the Leadership Level

All too often, membership is MIA in leadership circles. Beyond the question of whether its growing, little information is shared on the subject. But leading an association requires different skills and knowledge than leading a business or nonprofit. A membership strategy is required. Membership-specific training is needed and a membership officer should be appointed to the exec team. If membership isn’t at decision-making tables, something else inevitably takes its place.

Focused on Recruiting

Rather than look within to better understand why members are leaving, the first reaction of some associations is to focus on recruiting. This doesn’t get to the root of what’s causing the decline, and over time, this instability does considerably more harm, negatively affecting organizational culture, brand, and member experience. Simply put, membership isn’t the priority when an association is fixated on recruiting new members rather than serving the members already there.

Tries to Be Everything to Everyone

When associations try to be everything to everyone, eventually, no one feels especially important, connected, or valued. Expanding to engage new audiences should be considered if, and only if, membership is healthy and growing, market saturation is nearing, and the association has the financial stability and bandwidth to expand reach strategically and intentionally over time. Membership isn’t the priority when an association is focused on quantity rather than quality.

Board Isn’t Reflective of the Membership Community

Leadership is no longer synonymous with job titles or limited by years of experience, nor is it exclusive to an age group, gender, or race. Membership isn’t the priority if the membership community isn’t reflected in your organization’s leadership. The voices of the entire membership need to be represented in governance—not just a select few.

Delayed Efforts to Engage Young Professionals

I’m shocked by the number of associations who just gave up on reaching a younger demographic, broadening their definitions of young professional to include people under age 50, ditching student programs, or otherwise making strides to further distance themselves from next-generation outreach. Membership is not the priority when associations fail to make room for everyone.

The word is right there in the definition: membership organization. Yet, membership has become increasingly less influential — and sometimes completely absent — from the list of strategic priorities. This means associations have lost sight of who and what really matters and why their organizations were founded in the first place.

If you need a reminder, here it is:

The association was founded to serve. It exists to create something sustainable, relevant, and meaningful for a community of members.

It really is that simple — and powerful! Solve problems and build community. For and with your members. Create something meaningful. Together.

Membership matters. Nothing else.

Go back to your roots. Remember why the association was started. Focus on the who and the why and growth will inevitably follow.

Ready to make significant organization-wide change? Join my MemberShift Mastermind 90-Day Group Coaching program, featuring Coaching Intensives via Zoom, Community, as well as Tools and Best Practices!


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